GURF MORLIX FOLLOWS HIS GROOVE AND DEMANDING MUSE INTO THE “IMPOSSIBLE BLUE,” OUT FEB. 8 ON ROOTBALL RECORDS
10th solo album from the Austin-based songwriter, producer, and award-winning Americana musician takes an unflinching look at mortality — including his own — and finds a sliver of light through the blues
AUSTIN, TEXAS — There was a time, and not that long ago in the grand scheme of things, when Gurf Morlix didn’t really think of himself as a songwriter. A guitar player, sure — armed from the get-go with the dead-aim chops and cool-handed confidence of a natural-born gunslinger. Later on, he took on the mantle of producer, too, parlaying his myriad strengths as an ace sideman into an equally lauded career helping a veritable who’s who of the most formidable poets in Americana find their “growl” and cut their deepest grooves on record. But songwriter? That handle took him a bit longer to fully embrace.
“I was always writing songs, since I was a teen, but I probably wrote 200 songs before I wrote a really good one,” Morlix insists. “For me, it was a tough code to crack.”
Nevermind the fact that his perspective on the matter was inevitably skewed by his years of working with such grading-curve-blowing talents as Blaze Foley, Lucinda Williams, Butch Hancock, Robert Earl Keen, Mary Gauthier, and Ray Wylie Hubbard: a high bar is a high bar, and Morlix, for all of his famed minimalist aesthetic both onstage and in the studio, has never been one to cut corners when it comes to quality. So by the time he finally did feel ready to step out with 2000’s Toad of Titicaca, there was no mistaking his debut for the work of an artist content to make due with just good enough. And now, nearly two decades later, when Morlix deems the nine new cuts comprising his 10th solo album, IMPOSSIBLE BLUE (due Feb. 8 on Rootball Records), to be “the best songs I’ve ever written,” take it as a matter of fact that every word, line, and note has been duly vetted by the toughest critic he’s ever encountered in his 50-odd years of making music: himself.
“The bar is still really high, and there are still songwriters out there that I always look up to, because the songs people like John Prine write — those are masterpieces,” says Morlix. “Writing like that is the goal. It’s not enough to just write a song and have it rhyme and try to make sure it doesn’t sound stupid; you have to say someting in a way that no one else has, and it has to mean something. And I think that I’ve finally gotten to where I’m doing that, because people really respond to the songs. That’s how you know. So, I feel like I’m getting pretty close.”
But as Morlix has learned both through studying the masters and from his own experience, writing to that level is not something that ever gets appreciatively easier, no matter how many songs you’ve written or how much fame — or at the very least, peer and critical acclaim — you’ve achieved.
“I came to realize over many years that it’s really hard, and you don’t settle until you have it as perfect as you can make it,” he says of the craft. “When I hear a John Prine song and every syllable and every word is perfect, and it sounds so simple that it’s like a Hank Williams song, I know that Prine doesn’t knock those songs out in 20 minutes. He gets an idea and then he works on it, and he might spend years on these songs that sound like they were just tossed off in half an hour. But it pays off if you really put the work into something like that.”
Case in point: “Backbeat of the Dispossessed,” the closing track on Impossible Blue. Like more than a few of Morlix’s most deeply affecting songs from albums past, it’s a heartfelt but haunted, bittersweet eulogy to a dearly departed friend, in this case his oldest brother in musical arms, drummer Michael Bannister. They met as kids in Morlix’s native Buffalo, played in the same bands together all through junior and high school, then migrated south to Key West and later lived together off and on in both in Austin and Los Angeles. More than once their friendship would hit the rocks and they’d lose touch for long spells at a time, but as Morlix sings in the song, “I always knew I would see you again” — until the day he learned that Bannister had taken his own life.
That Bannister, like Blaze Foley before him, would someday be memorialized in a Morlix song was inevitable. It just took Morlix the better part of a decade: not to get around to it, but to get it right.
“I worked so hard on that one song for five, six, seven years,” says Morlix. “I just kept going back and changing it and trying different things, until I finally got it into a form that I liked. Because if it was going to be my song about him, it had to be right. Michael was a simple yet complicated individual. He had a teenaged son, and he eneded up killing himself. How sad do you have to be to kill yourself when you have a teenager? That blew my mind: How could he do this?”
“That,” he continues, “is the ‘impossible blue.’ You never get over that.”
For all the time he put into it, though, “Backbeat of the Dispossessed” offers no answers, only more questions — as befits not just a paean to a complicated lost soul, but the soul-searching work of a man who’s spent the better part of the last two years taking a long, hard look at his own mortality. In February 2016, Morlix suffered a serious heart attack en route to a gig. He was soon back on the road and back in the studio, recording not just one but two of the strongest albums of his career (with IMPOSSIBLE BLUE following 2017’s The Soul & the Heal, the songs for which were already written before his heart attack). But that doesn’t mean Morlix just shrugged off the whole experience and lumbered on an unchanged man. Far from it.
“I think the main thing I took away from all that is that I realize that every day is a bonus day,” he says. “I’m living on bonus time now, and I’m just very aware of that, every day. Basically, I’m just in love with life more than ever now. Because here it is, and I might not have been here, but … here I am.”
As far as Morlix’s music goes, the impact of that awakening is perhaps most readily apparent at his shows. By his own admission, Morlix used to be “deathly afraid” of meeting and talking to audience members after a show, and even more reticent to reveal too much about what his songs were about while playing them onstage, prefering for listeners to come up with their own interpretations. But not anymore. “My show is a lot more confessional than it ever has been before,” he says. “I do a lot of storytelling, and I’ll talk about my heart attack or whatever else I’m thinking at the moment, and it’s really been working. People started responding really positively to the stories — just like with the songs — and I realized it’s all about communication, and how important that is. Because we need people to be talking to each other, we need community, and we’ve never needed that more.”
Naturally, the ever-evolving arc of his songwriting has begun to bend more confessional of late, too — though even his most open-hearted reveals on IMPOSSIBLE BLUE prove that living-on-bonus-time Gurf Morlix is still unmistakably, well, Gurf Morlix. Suffice it to say, it would take a lot more than a mere brush with death to flip his default switch from blues to zippity-doo-dah. When Morlix alludes to his heart attack — or rather, his life after his heart attack — here, it’s with the stoic resolve of a battle-scarred survivor, grateful to still be kicking but arguably still more more bewildered than enlightened: “My head is throbbin’, my world keeps wobblin’ / All the alarms are soundin’ / But my heart keeps poundin’.” (“My Heart Keeps Poundin'”). And in “Sliver of Light,” he’s right back on the road again, driving to yet another gig in another town, still peddling his own songs of the dispossessed. Some are leavened with dark humor or even a glimmer of hope — two wild cards he’s always kept up his sleeve. But often as not, they’re steeped in impossible sorrow, be it all-too-real like Michael Bannister’s and that of the ones he left behind, or dredged from the darkest corners of Morlix’s imagination. In the chilling “I’m a Ghost,” a restless spirit howls unheard for justice, and two songs later, a man mourns for a drowned lover at the “Bottom of the Musquash River.”
Indeed, true to its title in both spirit and tone, IMPOSSIBLE BLUE is arguably the bluesiest album Morlix has ever made. Granted, it’s not quite an all-out genre trip like his 2004 album Cut ‘n’ Shoot, which found that year’s Austin Music Hall of Fame inductee crashing the honky-tonks with a sincerely wicked grin; but when he drops lines like “crawling out of primordial ooze / learning how to sing he blues” (from “My Heart Keeps Poundin'”), there’s no mistaking his conviction as anything but sincere. If it’s not all in the groove, like the way the opening “Turpentine” rumbles like a tin-roofed juke joint flanked by train tracks, it’s in the words: The gut-twisting agony of jealous heartbreak served up in “I Saw You” could chill even Robert Johnson to the bone.
Hell, in the world-weary “Spinnin’ Planet Blues,” Morlix even allows himself the rare indulgence of an extended, honest-to-god guitar solo. “That’s always been in my lexicon to play like that, but I just never had a song that really called for it,” he admits. “But that’s a straight-up minor blues, and when I wrote it I realized, ‘Well, that’s different! That’s probably got to be on the record.’ Plus, Red Young is on there, too, playing amazing B3.”
Although Young — who Morlix hails as “one of the best B3 players in the world” — plays on only three tracks on the record, his stamp on IMPOSSIBLE BLUE is as vital as the unmistakable beat of drummer Rick Richards, who’s been Morlix’s not-so-secret weapon for the lion’s share of his entire recording career. Morlix, meanwhile, handles all of the guitars and bass as well as keyboards and percussion, with Austin rising star Jaimee Harris assisting on harmony vocals. Together they form a small but lethally efficient wrecking crew, as perfect an instrument for capturing the primal punch and stark beauty of Morlix’s music as his beloved Rootball Studio. A refuge inside the refuge of his lakeside home in Austin, Rootball is where Morlix has produced, mixed, and mastered every one of his own records — for no better reason other than that the results just always sound damn good. And as long as his heart keeps poundin’, you can count on him to keep on making them, just as he promises in “2 Hearts Beatin’ in Time”: “There’s a bit more I want to do / left unfinished a thing or two …”
After all, what’s the use of living on “bonus time” if you don’t use it?
Richard Skanse 2019
THE SOUL AND THE HEAL – 2017
Visiting planet Gurf has always been an enlightening experience. After all, this Gurf Morlix fellow – Buffalo born, Texas bred – has provided us with countless indelible musical moments in the last 40-plus years: his exemplary guitar and production work with Lucinda Williams; his instrumental accompaniment to artists ranging from Blaze Foley to Warren Zevon; his production of watermark albums for artists such as Ray Wylie Hubbard, Robert Earl Keen and Mary Gauthier – and, since 2000, a series of eight solo records that have a singular worldview and can be both harrowing and heartening, often at the same time.
Now, prepare yourself for “The Soul And The Heal”. Gurf Morlix’s ninth album is another chapter in a songbook that pithily relates the human condition. But though Morlix’s signatures are still present on this masterstroke – lyrics that don’t waste a syllable, instrumentation without a spare note – there is also a hopefulness and vulnerability not always readily evident on his recent releases. The fact that “The Soul And The Heal” is pivotal for Gurf is immediately clear from the striking front cover image of a heart-shaped cherry with its pit exposed, and from the stark title that he says speaks to “the healing of the soul from all the damage we inflict on ourselves”.
It would be too easy to attribute Gurf’s evolution to the fact that in February 2016 he suffered a heart attack while dead stopped in the fast lane, in a traffic jam, on his way to a gig. In fact these new songs were all written before this episode, from which he has fully recovered. But there’s no doubt the emotions stirred by the unexpected December 2014 passing of Gurf’s musical mate, rock keyboard legend Ian McLagan, contributed to the career pinnacle that “The Soul And The Heal” is for Morlix.
The album was recorded at his Rootball home studio. Morlix comes by his musical minimalism naturally: “It’s the way my brain is wired. I like to hear everything clearly.” It’s a solitary sound, different from the sonics he brought to his outside productions – but, as always, it’s anchored by Morlix’s sinewy, expressive guitar. The other constant is drummer Rick Richards – who shares Morlix’s straightforward aesthetic (and whose rhythms Gurf echoes with two foot drums during his almost 100 solo gigs a year).
This batch of songs yields the expected Morlix darkness and humor, but woven between are numbers imbued with a warm light. The call to positive action on “Move Someone,” the mindfulness of “Right Now” and the sensitive finale “The Best We Can” balance this focused collection, an album that manages to run the gamut of emotions without being cloying or obvious.
With “The Soul And The Heal” Morlix continues to create his own singular musical universe, but the yin and yang of his outlook has never been as in sync as it is now, making it even more inviting to join him on Planet Gurf.
Jody Denberg 2017
The Sound of Infamous Integrity
Once, when asked by a promoter for a copy of his biography, Gurf Morlix responded with just two words, “legendary integrity.” He would later admit that his response was perhaps a bit pompous, “but true,” he added. “Well, half true anyway.” The story is a telling one, demonstrating not only Morlix’s directness, which is famous among his musical colleagues – or perhaps infamous, depending on who you ask – but also his dry sense of humor and no-bullshit approach to life, music, and the music business.
Had he sent the promoter a more traditional bio, it likely would have noted that Gurf was born in Lackawanna, New York (near Buffalo), saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, formed a band (in which Peter Case made his stage debut), moved to Austin to escape the cold and play music, befriended Blaze Foley and a bunch of other Austin characters, moved to Los Angeles, worked for more than a decade as Lucinda Williams’ guitarist, band-leader and backing vocalist, produced Lucinda’s acclaimed Sweet Old World and eponymous albums, famously left Lucinda, toured with Warren Zevon, moved back to Austin, produced a number of classic Americana albums you likely own if you are any kind of Americana music fan, played on many more albums you probably own if you fall into that category, got inducted into the Austin Music Hall of Fame, received the Americana Music Association’s “Instrumentalist of the Year” award, went on to make seven critically acclaimed albums of his own, and then toured the world supporting them. He now continues to play live, produce albums for the artists that move him, and make his own albums. He even goes fishing ever once in a while.
That’s the resume, but it’s Gurf’s integrity, combined his near innate sense of music and how to make it sound not just good, but great, that have attracted so many well-respected artists to work with him over the years – folks like Ian McLagan, Patty Griffin, Robert Earl Keen, Buddy Miller, Mary Gauthier, Tom Russell, Butch Hancock, Slaid Cleaves and Ray Wylie Hubbard, just to name a few. And, oh yeah, he can make nearly any instrument with strings either sing or growl, depending on the needs of the song, like no other musician out there.
Gurf’s eighth album, 2015’s Eatin’ At Me, kicks off with wailing guitars and an annual family car trip to “Dirty Ol’ Buffalo.” Never one to shy away from the gritty side of life, the portrait he paints of the rust belt city of his youth, with its rugged roads and smoky orange air, ain’t pretty, but it’s real and authentic to the core. Unlike the shiny city of today, all polished up with money and a thin coat of paint barely hiding the grease below, “Dirty Ol’ Buffalo” is the kind of place that stays with a person long after they’ve left.
The nine songs that follow on Eatin’ At Me have that same lasting quality and clearly come from a man who looks at life and the world around him, with all its grit and glory, unflinchingly. His songs tell tales of love and regret, happy memories and heartbreak, the kinds of things that stay will with a person, eating away at them, if allowed. What makes the songs unshakable is indeed Gurf’s “legendary integrity,” the authenticity of the characters he introduces, the empathy and fearlessness with which their stories are told, and the care with which the songs are made. No word, no note, is out of place, and like the many well-known and well-loved albums he’s produced and played on, Gurf’s own records are infused with his trademark grit and muddy groove resulting in quality that’s so real, listeners will feel it in their bones. Indeed, it’s the kind of album that stays with a person long after they’ve listened.
–Tiffany Walker, 2015